She’s flicking through one of those animal encyclopaedias, the kind you get heavily discounted in the run up to Christmas, and then even cheaper before New Year, the kind nobody is ever going to pay full price for.
‘Do you think I should keep this one, Mum?’ she asks. ‘I mean, it was a present. From him.’ I shrug my shoulders. I learned long ago that she’ll make her own decisions. Especially when it comes to her father.
‘Look, why don’t we have a hot chocolate. All this packing is making me thirsty. I got some marshmallows.’ I catch myself in mid-sentence, remember how my shrink keeps telling me that no attempt to compensate is ever going to make a difference, not when she was tiny, and certainly not now she is almost full grown.
‘I’m 14, Mum’, she says. ‘Remember. Not four. Still, if there’s marshmallows, then maybe!’ I creep into the kitchen, thinking about how alike we are in that regard, always hedging our bets with a maybe, not a straight out yes or no. Unlike him.
I heat the milk in the saucepan, watch the chocolate powder swirl into the white until the colours are one, see the tiny bubbles rise and grow, bursting at the surface, waiting for the split second before the liquid sticks to the metal base and burns. Years of practice and I’m still hit and miss. I pick out two pink marshmallows and place them on the plate. Then as an afterthought, I pop a white one on the other side of the mug.
She’s still thumbing the thick pages of the book which is blotted with stains from childhood spillages when I return, drinks and a plate of jammy dodgers to sweeten the separation.
‘Did you know that leopards only get together to mate?’ she says, without looking up. I peer at my only child, feel a pang of loss at the fact that my little girl is now almost a young woman. ‘God, if only things at school were so easy’, she groans. ‘If we could avoid the boys all the time, until we were old enough to, you know….’ I smile, wonder how long it will be until she gets her heart broken by the boy who just wants her for sex. I think about her father. How he made a show of being the solitary beast, the man able to adapt to all kinds of environments, the man who ultimately just wanted to track me down, fuck and fight.
‘It says’, she says, looking at me, a wide cocoa rim lipsticking her mouth. ‘The leopard is a supreme hunter, known for its speed and power. Well may be that makes me half leopard then’, she laughs, her long legs sheathed in Lycra from our morning run. ‘It is also known for its stealth? What exactly does stealth mean, Mum?’ I think for a minute, twisting her long brown hair in my fingers, then holding it up against the light to catch a glimpse of gold. One day I will be able to get over the fact that she looks nothing like me, apart from the hidden highlights.
‘It means when you do something so secretly, it catches someone by surprise’, I tell her.
‘You mean like Dad’, she says quick as a flash. I turn away, trying to hide my expression. When I turn back, I realise she has slipped the book silently into the box.
Hannah Storm has been a journalist for the past 20 years. Though her notebooks have long been full of snapshots from her adventures, she only started writing flash fiction, poetry and creative non-fiction last year as a way of honouring some of the extraordinary people she has met, remembering the places she has been and processing her own experiences. She lives on the south coast of the UK with her husband and two children and juggles parenting with work, writing and long-distance running.
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Cover image by Isobelyf
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